Nov 8, 2015

Father George Mathis, Artist…

The Website of the Glenmary Home Missioners includes a page dedicated to Glenmarian George Mathis.  It includes the following tribute, “CINCINNATI (August 29, 2012)—Father George Mathis, 84, a native of Euclid, Ohio, and a Glenmary Home Missioner for 61 years, died peacefully Aug. 26 in Kingsport, Tenn. Father Mathis was ordained in 1955. He served in a wide range of roles as a Glenmarian—including pastor of Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky missions; council member; department director; and liturgical environment artist, designer and consultant.

"Father Mathis was a deeply spiritual, faithful and artistically talented man who never hesitated to share his gifts with others," said Father Chet Artysiewicz, Glenmary's president. "He was a brother to us all and will be sorely missed."

He grew up during the Depression in a financially struggling family, the third of four brothers. "My parish church provided something very important, good and beautiful in my life," he said in a 1977 interview. He said he always had an appreciation for and desire to bring out the inherent beauty in people and things—and discovered he had innate talents in these areas.

"Ministry and priesthood are easy and natural ways to respond to the fractures and brokenness in people," Father Mathis reflected in that interview. "Through ministry I can help others discover or uncover their own forgotten or doubted beauty and value."

Following his ordination, he served as an associate pastor at missions in Franklin and Guthrie, Ky., and Swainsboro, Ga., before moving on to his first pastorate in Claxton, Ga., where he ministered from 1960 to 1965.

Father Mathis served in leadership roles in Glenmary for the next 13 years—as a council member, promotion and mission office director, and formation director—before pastoring missions in Pulaski and Fayetteville, Tenn. (1979-83). Following these assignments, he was appointed Glenmary's personnel director (1983-87) before returning to mission areas to pastor two more Kentucky missions—Vanceburg (1987-88) and Grayson (1988-93).

Even as a young associate pastor and pastor, Father Mathis also used his art and design skills to enhance the liturgical settings where his Catholic communities worshiped, as well as advising other missions on design. His talent enabled him to carry out these efforts with no formal training.

However, during a one-year period of renewal from 1978 to 1979, he took courses and worked in various art media, developing and refining skills that would eventually change the course of his ministry. To cap off the year, he learned stained-glass art and design from a master craftsman in Assisi, Italy—and found out he loved it.

Providentially, as pastor of the Fayetteville, Tenn., mission (1979-83), he was able to put his skills to work in helping design a new church building. He also helped create 10 stained-glass windows and introduced a collaborative process he later used at many other times and places.

First he created the designs and then trained mission volunteers to cut glass and assemble the windows. This method, he said, allowed the financially strapped congregation "to bring color, beauty and inspiration into their worship space" for about 10 percent of what a professional studio would have charged. Most important, he realized "the windows were only a byproduct. What we were building was community between mission members."

Father George at a drafting table designing a panel
In 1993, Father Mathis requested and received Glenmary senior-member status at age 65 so he could have more time for his art and design work. "God gave me these talents, too," he said, "and I wanted more time to use and share them." As a senior member, he also served as a sacramental minister for Glenmary and diocesan congregations near his Kingsport home.

Before his death, Father Mathis completed 15-20 stained-glass projects—at Glenmary missions, other Catholic churches, a Christian church, and more. He employed the group method on the majority of jobs, an approach that, to his knowledge, no one else was using. In addition, he served as a liturgical design consultant for a number of Glenmary missions and other rural parishes with very limited budgets.

"I feel very blessed," Father Mathis said in 2010, "that with the support of the Glenmary community, I've been able to do pastoral ministry and be a spiritual leader, as well as having the opportunity to use some of my other talents to serve God and other people."

Father Mathis is survived by nephews, nieces, fellow Glenmary missioners and friends.
Memorials may be made to Glenmary Home Missioners, PO Box 465618, Cincinnati, OH, 45246.”

I first met the man I knew as “Father George” in 1981 when I first moved to Lincoln County, Tennessee.  At that time, there was no separate Catholic church building in the county.  A unique Christian community had taken root that was a cooperative venture between the Presbyterians in the Parks City area, and the county’s Catholics.  The sign in front of the church read, “St. John’s Presbyterian Church – St. Raphael Catholic Church – Christians Cooperating.”  Each Sunday, Father George would celebrate Catholic Mass at 8:30 AM.  At 10:00, we would have a joint Sunday school with both Catholic and Presbyterian leaders.  Then, at 11:15, the Presbyterian congregation would hold their Sunday service.  It was a remarkable relationship that had resulted in a truly wonderful worship environment.

Unfortunately for that cooperative community, the Catholic population of the county was expanding rapidly and needed its own facilities.  It fell to George Mathis to lead the construction of a new building on land that the congregation had acquired years earlier.  As is told on the Website of that congregation, “In 1968 the parish purchased a small lot on Wilson Parkway, which was to be a potential site for a new parish location.  …As a group, the parish worked diligently to raise sufficient money to purchase land and to commence construction on the church building itself. Foundations, funds, and individuals were solicited for contributions. During the fund raising phase a woman contacted the church, and offered a very large donation, to be granted anonymously, provided that the new church was named for St. Anthony. Her wish was granted in June 1982, and the change of the parish name to St. Anthony was approved. In June 1982, the parish purchased approximately five acres on the Huntsville Highway, subject to the approval of Bishop James D. Niedergeses. The property included a small frame house that would provide a residence for the pastor, and a four-car garage to use as a work and storage area, and provide meeting space for gathering after Mass. The parish sold the property on Wilson Parkway, and on Sunday, August 8, 1982, ground was broken for the new church, the first Catholic Church ever built in Lincoln County. The next month the Parish Council voted to include a new rectory in the building program. In the meantime, renovation of half of the garage area was being done by volunteer labor to provide a space for meetings and small socials.”

"Prayer Rising as Incense" and "Pentecost"
Windows at St. Anthony of Padua, Fayetteville, TN
Image courtesy of Flick River: SouthernBreeze
Father George worked closely with the new building’s architect.  He reminded him that the Hebrews were a nomadic people, and that their original places of worship would have been tents.  He wanted the building to have that “feel.”  And so the building became a structure of large flat planes, like those of a tent, and appeared to be anchored at its corners.  And in ten locations throughout the sanctuary, provision was made for stained glass windows.  George informed the Parish Council that he was planning to use parish volunteers to build these beautiful windows!

He had been hatching this idea since he had studied stained glass art in Italy.  He felt certain that he could instruct the volunteers in the craft of cutting and mounting the individual colored panes.  He would perform as designer and adviser.  What could possibly go wrong?

George began by submitting several sets of ideas for themes that he had sketched out on paper, showing all ten panels in miniature.  The parish council selected one set as their favorite, and Father George then rendered each of these ten selected panels in full scale on large sheets of craft paper.  These would serve as our life-size patterns.  We set up a couple of large work tables in an old, drafty, dirt-floored garage that existed on the property, adjacent to the site where the church was already taking shape.  A group of volunteers was assembled to receive training from George.  We proceeded with the windows in the order that they would be needed in the building.  One of the workers who contributed most was Joe Bonin.  He was married to one of the members of the church and had gotten recruited.  He was the only member of the crew with any experience!  George even recruited his brother Bill to come to Fayetteville for a few weeks to help out.

A beautiful window George designed
for Holy Trinity Church in
Swainsboro, Georgia
Within a few weeks, the windows were completed.  They were spectacular and remain so to this day.  And they remain to this day a tribute to the artistry of their author, George Mathis.  The subjects, Prayer Rising as Incense, Pentecost, Holy Spirit, the Elements of Communion, are all intended to inspire and enhance the worship experience.  George knew exactly what he was doing.  We were all especially blessed to have known him.

Not long after we had completed the church’s construction, I was beginning to come to terms with my alcoholism.  Margo and I went to talk to Father George and we met privately in the new sanctuary.  When I shared that I thought I might have a problem with alcohol, George told me that I had a sickness and then he surprised me by anointing me with Holy Chrism, a ceremony of healing.  He then told me I was in luck.  It seems that he served two churches, the one in Fayetteville and the Immaculate Conception Church in Pulaski, Tennessee.  And in Pulaski, he was assisted by an ordained Catholic deacon named Art.  And Art just happened to be a recovering alcoholic with over 35 years’ sobriety.  And by the way, Art was in his office that day and would be happy to talk to me.

I went and talked to Art that day.  It would be a few more months until I finally established my own sobriety date, but the events of that day were very much part of my recovery story.  Thanks, George, for life itself.  Rest in peace, my artist friend.

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